Thousands of people demonstrated in Tel Aviv Saturday evening ahead of the government’s likely approval of a controversial gas deal with US energy giant Noble Energy.
Hundreds also protested in Jerusalem, Haifa and Beersheba against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s intention to bypass anti-trust regulations in order to pass the deal, which opponents have come to call “the great gas robbery.”
“The authorities are trying to help Big Money ‘clean up’ at the expense of Israeli citizens,” activist and organizer Yossi Dorfman told Channel 2 News. “To ‘clean up’ from natural resources that belong by law to the citizens of Israel.”
Dorfman said the gas controversy was not an issue of right or left, and that any attempt to paint it as such was an attempt to weaken the opposition movement.
In Tel Aviv some protesters clashed with police, leading to the arrest of around 10 people. Three people were detained in a Beersheba scuffle between demonstrators and law enforcement officials.
MK Orly Levy-Abekasis of the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party, also at the protest, said regulators who had tried to oppose the deal had been ignored and sidelined.
“The gas monopoly has already led two regulators to be kicked aside and has sent ministers running,” she said.
Last week Economy Minister Aryeh Deri, who had long refused to sign off on bypassing anti-trust regulations, resigned from his post. This paved the way for the government to green-light the multibillion dollar deal. Netanyahu then took over the post and vowed to okay the agreement.
Deri had balked at giving the okay, but had also said he did not want to stand in the way of the energy deal, which Netanyahu has said could add hundreds of million of shekels to Israel’s coffers.
Under the terms of the deal, the government plans to give an international consortium led by Israel’s Delek Group and the American company Noble Energy rights to the largest gas reserve yet found in Israeli territorial waters, the Leviathan field, in exchange for scaling back of their involvement in the currently operational Tamar field and the smaller Tanin and Karish fields.
Currently, Tamar’s single pipeline to the Israeli coast is the economy’s only source of natural gas, and development of the remaining fields has stalled over regulatory troubles.
The Leviathan find, thought to contain 18.9 trillion cubic feet (535 billion cubic meters) of gas, is considered a bonanza for the country, turning it into a potential major natural gas supplier and providing hundreds of billions of shekels for state coffers, according to Netanyahu.
Critics of the deal, including former anti-trust commissioner David Gilo, have expressed concern that the deal creates a de facto monopoly that would lead to high gas prices for Israelis. They have accused the government of capitulating to gas companies’ demands.
Gilo had called for opening Israel’s natural gas market to increased competition. He tendered his resignation in May over the dispute.